Univ. welcomes esteemed historian

By Sara Blair Matthews

Assistant News Editor


Historian Robert A. Caro, the 2011 Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters, presented years of research on former President Lyndon B. Johnson in a talk on Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. Caro is the author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies on Johnson and Robert Moses. 
His talk, held in the Weis Center for the Performing Arts, was entitled “Power in the Hands of a Master.”
“We [were] excited to have Robert. A Caro visit Bucknell in the midst of a presidential election. [He] is among the country’s foremost presidential historians, and his insight and expertise offer a valuable perspective,” said Andy Hirsch, director of media communications.
Caro explained that he wished to highlight the achievements of the accomplished political figures in his works.
“I never thought of [my works] as biographies. I thought of them as means of illuminating the lives of the people I was writing about,” Caro said.
Caro also discussed the importance of turning every page and not assuming anything when conducting research. He mainly discussed his research for the biography “The Years of Lyndon Johnson, The Path to Power.” Caro talked about how Johnson’s term was a “watershed presidency” because when it ended, the United States was a very different country than when Johnson assumed office.

“[Primarily,] America changed through Johnson’s use of political power,” Caro said.

Caro discussed how one of the main emphases of Johnson’s presidency was to drastically lessen poverty in America.

“He created a war on poverty, [but] no one understood why it meant so much to him,” Caro said. The historian began to understand why this was true when he went to live in Johnson’s native Texas Hill Country, a region in Central Texas, for three years while conducting research for his book.
“I’ll never forget the first time I drove out there. I saw incredible loneliness and incredible poverty,” Caro said. He believes that once he understood the place, he was able to better understand Johnson and his actions.
“I came to understand his ruthlessness to do anything to win, his desire to help the poor and his need to get out,” Caro said. “One man changed tens of thousands of lives. When I talked with people in the town, I kept hearing the same word, ruthlessness, over and over again. People said, ‘no matter what he was like he brought the lights.’”
He did so literally, as he brought electricity to the town during his term. Caro said he did not necessarily come to like Johnson by doing research on him, but he certainly did come to admire his achievements.
“He had a great desire to help poor people and people of color. [He was capable of doing so much.] It’s a tragedy for America that he ruined it [with the Vietnam War],” Caro said.
President John Bravman hosted a private dinner event with Caro at 5:30 p.m. prior to the talk. Students were asked to register, and the names of four students were randomly drawn to join Caro and other guests.
“We had thought that meeting the man who wasn’t afraid of Robert Moses, had won two Pulitzer Prizes and had been awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama would be intimidating,” said Margo Cain ’13, one of the students chosen to attend the dinner with Caro. “Robert Caro turned out to be a knowledgeable, humorous, fascinating man with a dedication to history and politics, and an interest in hearing how the younger generation views the world.”
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